My friend Roger Phillips is no shrinking violet. When he was an outdoors writer for the Statesman, he blasted and biked his way across Idaho. He spent a month reporting from Iraq when Idaho’s 116th Brigade went to war. This guy likes a challenge.
But his Thursday Facebook post grabbed my attention. Doubts about the security of his personal information finally prompted him to step away from Facebook. But that wasn’t all.
[ RELATED: How to submit a letter to the Statesman ]
“I’ve also become concerned how people I know and respect have been turned into political caricatures by Facebook,” Roger wrote to his friends. “We all have our political opinions, and I respect those, but I see you all as multi-dimensional people who’ve been pigeonholed into stereotypes based on politics and demographics. I prefer to think of you all in the ways I know you to be, good-hearted, hard-working, honest, good neighbors and citizens, and most important, friends.
“Feel free to send me an email, text, call, follow me on Twitter (@rogeroutdoors) or stop me on the street and say hello and catch up on what’s new in our lives. Kind of like how we used to do it.”
How we used to do it.
I’m thinking a lot about that these days. As a newspaper editor, I worry about how people who once spotted an error or an oversight and brought it to our attention to correct now assume the worst, grab their social media megaphones and rush to denounce us as the biased, lamestream, mainstream media.
So imagine it is your job to sift through hundreds of letters, columns and commentaries every week to decide what to put in a newspaper that serves a blue city in a red state. It’s my job to select a cross-section of opinion content that will reflect the tough issues and hard choices we face. Try to do that without being labeled a purveyor of “fake news,” accused of normalizing corrupt behavior, or willfully conspiring to destroy our president.
Welcome to my world.
Some people complain about our letters to the editor, saying that letters critical of the president are evidence not that people are concerned about their country, but that conservatives have abandoned the Statesman.
One critic cited a Dec. 23 letter comparing Trump and Obama, saying our failure to check the writer’s facts was evidence that we distort things to fit to an agenda. To that commenter, our openness to submissions without significant editing is a mark against us.
Other writers say we run only letters we agree with. One recent writer demanded to know why we were killing his pro-gun control letter, when it was simply waiting in the queue.
Right now, we have about 125 letters in our publishing system. We run about 35 letters a week, so at busy times some do have to wait. As of March 20, we’d published 393 letters in 2018. The president, the Legislature, the shootings, the high school activists – the news has prompted lots of people to write.
And that’s great. We run all letters except those that are in bad taste, and we try to run them in the order we receive them.
We also publish longer guest opinions. I have 14 in our system and another 37 guest opinions sitting on my desk, awaiting a decision. We can print seven to nine a week, and we get new submissions every day. So you can see that I have more than 20 or so chances a week to get it wrong, to make people angry, to invite the label of censor.
So, how do I pick and choose? I look for a variety: guns, education, immigration, development, history, and then contrary perspectives on those topics. I try to give priority to people who’ve been criticized by us or others in our pages; we want them to have a chance to respond. Then I give a priority to those in the news, such as the U of I students who had the encounter with Sen. Foreman at the Capitol. I give a priority to people who write on topics not already addressed. I had so many submissions on the proposed science education standards and health care bills that I couldn’t run them all. Timely columns get in first; timeless guest opinions sometimes wait for weeks. Sometimes good columns pass their best-by date waiting to get in.
I also like to ask newsmakers, members of our editorial board or someone I meet in the community to share an experience or write about a topic in the news. An observation by Editorial Board member Sophie Sestero that people were joking “Oops, MeToo moment!” when bumping others at holiday parties turned into an article. So did Judge Mike Wetherell’s dream about a possible impeachment scenario. I’d love to hear from a student willing to write about what it’s like to be bullied.
I’ll be the first to say we can get it wrong. Last fall, I tried to take a break on F-35 columns. I told writers that I felt we’d aired all sides and I wanted to wait until we got the Air Force decision on siting the noisy jets. I was attacked, by name, as a censor and a liar. Both sides were persuaded I was squelching them and presenting only their opponents’ view.
The truth was a lot less exciting: I was tired of the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin-style arguments (“Patriots!” “NIMBY!” “The sound of Freedom!” “Quality of life!”) and I was hearing the same complaint from others not in the fray.
It’s even harder sorting syndicated content, which tends to reflect the harshest takes on our divided politics. We apply the same process to those writers, looking for the smartest and most original views. I’m finding the national columnists so predictably partisan that I look hard for newer writers from the center, right and left who take on unique issues (driverless cars, social media) or offer less-predictable takes on familiar issues. And of course, cartoonists see the world in the starkest black and white. Nothing makes readers madder.
Overall, one of the biggest challenges these days is that even traditionally conservative voices can be critical of the president or the GOP Congress. Inevitably, the party in power gets the most scrutiny and criticism. And with President Trump inviting it, provoking it, reveling in it, he’s getting a boatload.
Opinion pages were the original social media, inviting readers and regular people to share their views with the world. We’re proud of the opportunity we provide to anyone to get their letter before the community. It’s a sizable commitment we make to openness and to ensuring that more voices on more issues get heard in a respectful setting. An old-fashioned sentiment that seems more relevant than ever.